Friday, December 18, 2009

Compositional Conversation Observations

Terry Jarrard-Dimond - Stage 1 & 15

First I want to thank the participants of this project:
Rebecca Howdeshell, Beth Carney, Shelley Baird, Gayle Vickery Pritchard , Judi Hurwitt, Leslie Bixel, Fulvia Luciano, Marcia DeCamp, Marina Kamenskaya, Paula Swett, Valerie Goodwin, Kathy Loomis, Leslie Riley, and Terry Jarrard-Dimond. You were all wonderful to work with.

At the end of this article all 15 Stages of the project are pictures.

Compositional Conversation was the result of my desire to communicate with friends I don't see very often and to interact with new friends I had met online. It was also developed as a way to raise my profile within the art quilt community along with the profiles of all the artists involved. The idea was simple. I started a composition which was passed along from artist to artist, each in turn working with the piece to move it to a conclusion.

The artists who were invited were a mixture of those I know personally and some I have only met briefly or know only online. I felt there was a nice mix of some with very well defined personal styles and a few who are still searching. Everyone had the opportunity to request placement in the lineup and some did ask to be placed early in the schedule while others were put near the end because I knew what good designers they are and I felt they might be better able to work with whatever had developed at that time. My biggest surprise was that almost everyone I ask actually accepted the invitation.

My thinking about the project and it's significance developed right along with the piece which is now officially entitled: Compositional Conversation. In the early stages I thought the project really was about using our skills to design a piece of work. Without realizing it, I mentally imposed my studio method on everyone and thought the piece would progress with each person adding one or two pieces. One of the options was to 'restart the composition' as long as the artist included something from the previous versions. I was surprised how many people choose to start with a new composition. About midway through the project I began to realize it was more of an exploration of how this specific group of artists worked in the privacy of their own studio's (how much this was impacted by the fact that their contribution would be published on the web I can not say). I do know that the comments and descriptions of their process was for me the most interesting part of each weeks' posting. While the visuals were fun, the description of the thinking and decision making was what excited me.

There are some things I might change about my original outline for this project but on the whole it worked well as a conversation. Some of the participants as well as some of the followers of the project have suggested we needed more rules or guidelines but I disagree. I really was not thinking of this as a true collaboration but, as I stated earlier, a conversation and I believe that is what we saw happen. One person made a contribution or change and the next person responded either by working with what they received or by digging in and starting something over. My personal feeling is that more rules push you toward a design exercise rather than artists using their skills as artist.
I did expect more written conversation but I have also come to appreciate the difficulty in doing this in written form in a public forum. There is much room for misinterpretation and personally one of my goals was to sponsor and participate in a project and still have good relationships with all those involved.

Just a note on the issue of the end result and changes from one artist to another. You may have noticed the link on the sidebar: This is a blog page I established solely for our project. Here you can visit and always see each stage as it was completed by each artist. Each version will continue to exist in the digital world even thought it has been changed in the physical world.

Thank you to all the readers who have shared this experience and who have commented either here, in private emails or on Facebook. Your contribution was much appreciated.

I now relinquish the floor to some of the other members of this group

Rebecca Howdeshell - Stage 2

Since I was the first to contribute to the Compositional Conversation project, it does seem like a lifetime ago that I had it hanging on my design wall, trying out paper patterns. However, I can still remember the excitement at receiving the composition and the myriad of decisions I faced before making my final choice. That time was neither scary nor frightening, it was exhilarating and exciting and I enjoyed every minute. That is what I enjoyed the most about the project, reading about the fear and apprehension as the composition was unfolded from the shipping box, followed by the steps each artist took as she made her decisions and then, TA DA, the final reveal. Each artist works so differently, and I looked forward to each Monday morning. Did I agree with how each artist approached the project? No. I'll admit to being disappointed sometimes. But it is all about the journey and the interaction and that, for me, was what I'll remember the most. Thank you, Terry, for the invitation to participate. You were gracious and kind and managed the project beautifully.

Beth Carney - Stage 3

I was involved in the early process, and felt very excited about it. Being first felt like I was setting up a conversation since I was only the third person to be involved and there were few elements involved. I also felt that there was a sense of responding to what the previous artist had created. (easy to do when there are only 2 elements up!!!) When artists began to take everything off and start all over again, I was frustrated by the process asking myself, "what is a conversation?" Is anyone listening to what has been said?", But here is where the letting go really happened. Didn't realize I was such a control freak. Control a conversation? Do or say what is expected HA!!! What's the point if you go where expected. So, the fun began and each week was a treat. I began to see that this project was not about creating a work of art - but more about what had contributed to the process of why and how each person responded to it. I felt it was very hard to critique each new look of the piece - process was more important and process is personal. I would have loved to have a piece up there for us to see and then have some kind of group phone call, where we could really talk about the artists process and ask questions (not critique but converse.) Or maybe more conversation would have taken place if we had a closed blog and then opened it up to others...(that's a question, not a comment. I don't know if that would have really worked.)

I also had mixed feelings about cutting up elements - was it similar to cutting up someone's sentence and changing the meaning of what that person was trying to say? Was that okay? One side of me says yes, gives the next artist freedom, the other side says no, wasn't that part of the challenge to work with what other artists presents...if you want another shape...create it?

In conclusion, it was a great project to be part of. THANKS!!

Shelley Brenner Baird - Stage 4

This project was a very thought provoking experience - even more so after my part was done. It definitely was a 3 - act play. Those of us in the earlier stages had to add basic structures, colors/textures and shapes because we had a very spare canvas. Deleting parts was not much of an issue at that point, and adding a lot of small pieces felt too selfish. I think that after each stage I had a mindset that we should have something that could be considered complete, not something that would be finished later (although it would be).

To me the second part had to do with a proliferation of shapes and experimentation - chopping, adding, subtracting, contracting and expanding.
Finally the last few stages were for expert puzzle makers and the resolution amazed me. This was great fun and I am up for trying it again or any other project with these folks!

Judi Huwitt - Stage 5

When the invitation to participate in CC first arrived in my mailbox, I was stunned, thrilled, honored and petrified, all in that order. I'll be honest - at the time, I didn't know anything about the work of most of the women who had agreed to participate, but even the most cursory browsing of their many accomplishments in the art and quilt-making worlds left me worrying that I couldn't possibly crate at their level. How could I contribute to such a vastly talented and obviously highly skilled pool of textile artists when I'm so new to the medium, myself? How could I elevate the work and honor the work of those who came before and after? I had a lot of sleepless nights. I need not have been so frightened, though=these turned out to be some of the warmest, most sincerely dedicated, friendly, talented and patient artists I've had the pleasure of spending time with. When I dove in from a paper artists' perspective and shook things up a little, they embraced the changes I'd made and the thinking behind it. I felt as if I hadn't let anyone down, and in fact, had achieved my goal...Turns out, I'd had a voice to add to the Conversation, after all. It was a proud moment for me when I placed the still-new work of art back into its box and shipped it off to the next artist. Thank you to everyone who has followed along on this journey with us and added your voices to the Conversation.

Leslie Bixel - Stage 6

One of my artistic goals since leaving the corporate world has been to establish an artistic community for myself that is safe and supportive of my work, and challenging to me as an artist. I have joined a monthly surface design studio and critique group. The Compositional Conversation group provided a different sort of artistic community. Since we were working on a single piece together, I assumed it would also be a more COLLABORATIVE experience than doing your own work in the occasional company of other artists. I was wrong about this last bit, and it has made me think long and hard about my own notions of collaboration, artistic and otherwise.

One of my first e-mails to this group was titled "Checking the Rule Book". So I guess I'm staying pretty true to type.

If I am to fault anything in the design of the Compositional Conversation project, it was that it was too open, too unstructured. Because there was no theme, no goal, other than to have a design conversation, I felt the opportunity to collaborate together on the piece was lost. Without a shared vision of where we were headed, the urge to respond to the compositional elements seemed in almost every case to be over-ruled by the desire to make one's mark. Nearly every artist succumbed to the siren call of "resolving" the piece, and thus made the work their own, rather than of the group, and often eliminated a good portion, even all, of the previous artists' sensibility and contribution.

Now, the human need to make one's mark is a powerful thing. But I do wonder if we would have had a different conversation with each of us assigned a design element (eg. line, shape, color, etc); or been asked to stay within a theme (eg. nature, war, community). Whatever. I'm just throwing out these ideas, because, through this experience I have learned that I am a person who enjoys conversations, but in the end I am much more excited by collaboration.

Marcia DeCamp
- Stage 8

I was very flattered to be asked to be a part of the project, and didn't hesitate to agree to join in.

Then I was nervous while waiting my turn, wondering what I would be able to contribute.
But when the project arrived at my studio, I had no problem just jumping in and had great fun trying out several ideas for adding to the project. I felt confident in the major changes that I made and was satisfied with the resulting composition that I sent on - sorta surprising myself!

It seemed that a lot of us chose not to build upon what we received, and chose instead to basically start over or take the project in a different direction. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, but it wasn't what I had imagined that the process would be like.

I think having the project spread out over 4 months gave more people a chance to participate and allowed time for hopefully more people to find your blog and find out more about the project. I wonder, though, if having fewer people work on the project over a shorter period of time would have generated more interaction between the artists. Once the project left my studio (and I wouldn't have any more direct input), it was hard for me to feel a vested interest or stay attached. to the project.

Gayle Pritchard
- Stage 9

To summarize: It was really fun to receive something to "converse" with, because it already had a starting point. Of course, I find my own starting point in my own work, but it is different to have something in front of you, created by others, yet demanding your response. My challenge in responding was to risk a completely honest, personal response. My trepidation was warranted, because very little of what I did remained in the end. I especially liked the "x" shapes I was inspired to include, but no one who followed seemed to like them. In fact, I was quite surprised to see my contributions described as whimsical or cutesy. I think perhaps, the others did not "get" what I was doing. I really enjoyed my own conversation with the traveling piece, and really liked what I created. It was very hard not to resolve the composition/conversation before sending it along. As I have repeatedly said on your blog about the project, it has been most enjoyable reading about the processes of other artists. We all remain isolated in our studios, and yet were able to interact visually, and through the blog. I have been fascinated to learn more about how other artists work, their thought processes on a shared experience, the similarities and differences to my own way. Reading the blog, and seeing the "in Progress" images was inspiring. Thanks for including me!

Paula Swett - Stage 10

I just loved the experience. I was #10 on the list of artists' to receive CC. As I awaited my turn to receive the baby, I found myself becoming nervous and filled with doubt. You certainly hand picked a group of very talented people and I began to wonder if I even knew how to compose in a way that would fit in with with the other work.

As soon as I opened the package I immediately jumped in with much excited energy and all self doubt went away. I think what I loved the most was learning more about my own compositional process and reading and seeing how others in this group compose. I find myself in the past few weeks referring back to my process for CC and integrating the voices of the others who so graciously shared this process.

I would definitely do this again as I learned so much and totally enjoyed the process. I loved the idea of everyone getting together to work on a composition. It has been a very valuable process for me. Thanks ever so much for your excellent coordination.

Kathy Loomis
- Stage 12

Terry asked us to write about our experience participating in this project. I think it was a fascinating experiment in bring together a lot of people who don't know one another ( I know four of the participants well, and one as an acquaintance). To ask such a group to collaborate effectively is a tall order, and I'm not sure how successful we were.

It appears each of us felt the urge to put a little of ourselves in there. Some of us contributed signature fabrics, others added what I think were "signature shapes," design elements that frequently appear in their own work. At the beginning this worked pretty well, but as the project went to more and more people I wondered if it was becoming like a sampler than collaboration. I have read of group efforts like the Hive Project and the upcoming Sightlines exhibit sponsored by SAQA, where participating artists make works of their own design that will eventually be combined in a single installation. Such projects seem to be a gamble - certain artists' pieces probably work better together than others'. I suspect the installation is tricky, as you try to put the ones that don't play together well on the far edges. In these cases, the collaboration seems more hoped-for than planned.

On a positive note, this made me think about what would be necessary to have a true collaboration, intended to produce real artistic merit, in a work that was not of the 'sampler' genre. I think you'd need to start with extensive discussion about the subject, the message, the artistic vision and the techniques.

Leslie Riley - Stage 13

Early on when I was asked by Terry to participate I agreed in order to honor my friendship with Terry and to fulfill a goal that I have had since entering into quilt making, to participate in a "round robin". I remember then thinking about the challenge of working with others to learn about their creative choices and trying to reconcile the voices of the participants to create a successful and cohesive product. As much as this experiment was to learn from each participant about their approach to work, it is also an opportunity to evaluate my humanity. By this I mean it challenged me to assess the comments and actions taken by each artist in a way that I want to foster in myself while I am working without harsh judgment. I asked myself basic questions that I often ask myself during my creative process, like did that action serve the piece, is it what I wanted, do I like it, why and what if? Based on the answers to these and other questions I make more choices until I approach a satisfied state. I assume that is true for other artists as well. The profression of CC is an example of me making a piece as an experiment to provide source material for other pieces. I make forms that work and some that do not. During this process I seldom make evaluations about it being good or bad, more often I ask does it work or not? I guess I am trying to say that I thought of each artist working as me and I never want to put myself down and evaluate myself in a way that did not foster my success as an artist. I look for the value in each contribution.

I loved seeing the temperament and the courage of each artist represented in their contribution. The clearer the voice of the contributor, the easier to see the contribution despite the many hands involved. I loved seeing that and the strength of their voice reminds me of formal issues that I would like to explore and be better at achieving in my work.

Thank you all for your role in the experiment and for being an wonderful creative example everyone.

I encourage the participants of this project to revise the project, implement some of the changes mentioned and host a second project to start next fall. If someone takes on the challenge I will certainly want to participate. Thank you All again and Happy Holidays! xxoo, Terry

Stages 1-15 So what do you think? We would love to hear your feedback.


  1. This was an enormously successful project in my opinion; I've followed it from the beginning. I admire the professionalism and artistic integrity each participant brought to it, and have been fascinated reading about the choices that were made, and the rationals behind them. I think the "free form" nature of the guidelines made for an open and experimental mindset that led to some interesting places. Thanks to all concerned for providing me with substantive mental fodder.

  2. Thank you Sue. I know the entire group appreciates your comments and support.

  3. I really enjoyed watching the progress of this project. It was interesting hearing the thought process of each artist. Each put in something of themselves; and it was interesting to see how the next artist resolved what they got, even though their style was different than the previous artist. I think you have to be a strong person to participate in something like this, since you may find what you contributed changed so much by the next artists! Thank you for posting such an interesting project.

  4. Thank you Gail. Yes, it took lots of self confidence to put yourself in such a public space and I applaud the group. I also thank you for following along with us.

  5. I was at the edge of my seat as I watched each week unfold. Could I even begin to know what to do with the conversation? Well, I think each of you did. Bravo!

    In 1998, design visionary Bruce Mau wrote a document that consolidated his way of thinking about work. You may have heard some of them before, but they relate to what you’ve all participated in. Here are 3 that resonate with the Conversational Composition Project (and me):

    Process is more important than outcome.
    When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we've already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

    Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgment. Postpone criticism.

    Begin anywhere.
    John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

    You can read all 43 Incomplete Manifesto for Growth statements here:

  6. Christine, Thank you so much for that wonderful comment of support for our project and the information on the Manifesto. I've already gone to the link and printed out the info and can't wait to spend more time with the ideas. I love the last item in your list, Begin Anwhere. That is so important because I see many people waste a lot of themselves waiting for the 'big idea' not realizing that often the big idea is just underneath many smaller ideas. Thanks for being part of our project!

  7. Wow, Christine, these quotes really hit the nail on the head for me. I was not previously familiar with Bruce Mau, but have taught these same principles for decades, so they really ring true. For the purposes of this CC project, the first one you quoted, being driven by process strikes a chord. (Note a Jasper Johns quote I keep in my studio: "Value the process" and "Do Something, then do something else.") I know some of the participants were frustrated by the lack of rules or limitations on the outcome of the project, but for me, process is the most important part, and something we each approach differently. Even in honoring the process in CC, I still was not creating my own work, rather responding to what someone else had created and adding my two cents worth...

  8. Gayle, Thank you for your comment. Process, process, process. It is the 'thing' that feeds me and as I am finding, it feeds many of us.